Sunday, September 09, 2007

Onesimus: Brother, Disciple...Bishop?

(23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given 8 & 9 September, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; read Philemon and Luke 14:25-33)

This homily touches on the abhorrent practice of human slavery, unfortunately an accepted reality at the time of the nascent Church. For a thorough treatment on the issue of slavery, and the Catholic Church’s position regarding it, please refer to Rev. Raymond Suriani and his homily this week. The link to his blog is on the right.

This morning Christ speaks to us about the cost of discipleship—what it takes to follow Him in this world—and what He asks of us is no less than everything. We must love Him more than our own possessions, more than our own families, more than we love our very lives. And we must be willing to follow Him even in the midst of our own suffering. He says:

Whoever does not carry his own cross
and come after me cannot be my disciple.
—Luke 14:27

But have you ever wondered if it would be easier to follow Christ if you had a different cross than the one you carry? Perhaps you’ve thought to yourself, “I would be a much better Christian if I didn’t have these particular struggles in my life.” Maybe you have even said to yourself, “If I could just start over again, someplace far away, everything would be different.”

I would like to tell you a story about a young man who tried to do exactly that; I’m going to save his name until the end, but I promise that you have heard of him before.

He was a servant in a very large household, and he was unhappy. One night he decided to leave everything behind, and he ran away to make a new life for himself. But the further he went, and the harder he tried, the worse things became. Before long he hit rock bottom and he eventually found himself in the local jail.

It was at that time, in that jail, that he met an old man who would change his life forever. The old man taught him to trust in God, and shared with him the truth about forgiveness in Christ, and God’s unconditional love. He taught him that his life had meaning and purpose, and then he encouraged the young man to go back to the household he had run away from.

“Go back?” the young man said to him. “I can’t do that!” He was a servant and the penalty for running away at that time was severe. But the old man told him not to worry, and he assured him that he actually knew the master of that house, and would personally write a letter guaranteeing his acceptance back. He assured the young man that, now that he had Christ in his life, everything had changed.

The name of that young man was Onesimus, and I said earlier that you had heard of him because he is the subject of this morning’s 2nd Reading. The old man was none other than the Apostle Paul himself, and the letter he promised to write—which is our 2nd Reading—has been read in the Church for nearly 2000 years. St. Paul had written to the master, Philemon, in the strongest language:

I, Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus, urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment…

Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother . . . Welcome him as you would welcome me.

—Philemon 9, 15-17

Onesimus had tried, on his own, to change his life, but he had failed. Yet in the midst of his own failure and the recognition of his own trials and difficulties, he discovered the freedom he was searching for all along. He found Jesus Christ, and became a brother to the Apostle Paul, and Philemon. He had entered into that new life and new beginning he was so ardently seeking, and today he teaches us the lesson that Christ offers in the gospel: that we cannot separate our crosses from the call to discipleship:

Whoever does not carry his own cross
and come after me cannot be my disciple.
—Luke 14:27

We cannot separate our daily struggles and the crosses we carry from the call to follow Christ. The two go together, and it is very often in the midst of our crosses that we find Christ and that He draws near to us and helps us shoulder that burden.

And it’s all right to ask God for another cross, or a lighter one. Christ Himself asked the Father three times that his cross might be lifted. What matters is that we are willing to follow Christ, even if the cross remains. We are willing to take up our cross and follow Him.

There is a very moving scene in the film, The Lord of the Rings, in which Frodo, who has been carrying the ring which causes him so much suffering, turns to the wise and prudent Gandalf and says, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” And Gandalf replies:

So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

Maybe we could follow Christ better if we had a different cross, or a different life. But this is the life that we have been given, and in this life, and in no other, God offers us hope. He offers us strength and the help we need to follow Him. And so we must decide what we will do with the time that is given to us, we must decide to take up our cross and follow Christ.

Which brings us back to our friend Onesimus. We never do find out in Paul’s letter what happened to him. But we do know that a man named Onesimus, around this time, became the Bishop of the Church at Ephesus, one of the most important cities in the early Church. Many scholars believe that this is the same Onesimus who met St. Paul in that jail only years before.

We don’t know for sure, but what we do know is that this young man—in the end—was “no longer a slave but a brother,” and above all, a disciple of Jesus Christ. May we, too, become faithful disciples of Christ and follow Him in our daily lives.